Why the US Must Quit Negotiating with Iran

The $2 trillion stimulus law aimed at mitigating the costs of the COVID-19 crisis ultimately marked a bipartisan triumph. There also is bipartisan consensus on another national security threat: the importance of renewed negotiations with Iran. Here, the consensus is mistaken. It is time to abandon the quixotic quest for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian threat, and instead pressure the regime further by adopting a policy of regime collapse.

The Tehran regime has been severely weakened by sanctions, persistent domestic instability and cratering oil prices. The spread of COVID-19 has weakened it further. It has officially infected more than 60,000 Iranians, though some estimate the number could be significantly higher, and has hit the regime’s senior ranks particularly hard. The disease has weakened Iran’s rulers internally, by further demonstrating their recklessness and incompetence, and externally, as its military leaders succumb to the virus and some proxies suspend operations to fight the pandemic.

For an already paranoid regime, the threat posed by COVID-19, in the assessment of Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, “probably makes them — in terms of decision-making — more dangerous, rather than less dangerous.”

Indeed, in the past four months, Iran reportedly has produced enough enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon and it has killed three Americans in Iraq. This mix of desperation and recklessness could lead Iran to further destabilize the Middle East, spread coronavirus, kill more Americans or cross a nuclear red line. The United States must act to stop it.

The debate about what to do is contentious, but all sides remain committed to a similarly flawed diplomatic endgame as the one that produced the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential frontrunner, likes to remind voters he is “the guy that helped put together the Iran deal,” would “rejoin the agreement” and urges “renewed commitment to diplomacy.”

Meanwhile, President Trump has been clear-eyed about the JCPOA’s failures, but also repeatedly calls for negotiations. Following the U.S. strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, for example, Trump urged, “We must all work together toward making a deal with Iran.” His administration appears divided about how to reduce Iranian aggression, whether to bolster deterrence through more direct U.S. military action or de-escalate with a more passive approach. Even more hawkish officials, however, advocate confrontation as a means to coerce Iran’s leaders into talks.

The impulse is admirable. Talks always sound appealing, especially when one’s adversary is weakened. But they must have a clear purpose, and the prospective benefits must outweigh likely costs. Negotiations with Iran would be counterproductive, if not irresponsible. A better policy would be “regime collapse.”

Simply reinstating the JCPOA, as Biden wants, would allow Iran to legitimately expand its nuclear program and procure advanced weapons. Yet Iran hasn’t shown any willingness to negotiate a better deal, as Trump wants. In fact, only complete dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program, as Libya conducted 15 years ago, would truly suffice. But Iran would only consider any drastic nuclear concessions if the regime believes it’s approaching collapse.

The regime has become increasingly hardline, rejecting outside assistance, preaching self-sufficiency and piousness, while building its own form of leverage against the United States by increasing uranium enrichment, targeting U.S. assets and pushing Iraqis to oust U.S. forces. It sees diplomacy with the United States as a sign of weakness it cannot afford.

Actually, as the regime weakens, diplomacy will only bolster it. Tehran has made sanctions relief a precondition for negotiations, demanding an economic lifeline at its most desperate moment. Talks would also signal that the United States accepts the legitimacy of, and is willing to work with, an Iranian regime that jails, tortures and kills its own people, demoralizing the many anti-regime Iranians.

Pursuing negotiations for a highly unlikely deal with Tehran could pose real political risks for President Trump. It is unlikely to mollify his critics, while raising serious concerns among key supporters, including Jewish and evangelical Christian pro-Israel communities for whom stopping Iran is a pressing moral and strategic issue.

The Tehran regime is indeed tottering. Yet, its collapse could happen tomorrow or in 10 years. All the more reason, however, why the first tenet of U.S. policy should be to do nothing to slow down Iran’s collapse.

The second tenet should be to ratchet up pressure on Tehran by sanctions, by continuing to hit back against its regional expansion on the ground, and by boosting the deterrence — through a U.S.-Israel mutual defense pact — and military capabilities of our Israeli ally, which consistently pressures Iran militarily.

Rather than extending Iran another opportunity to terrorize its people and the world, the United States should renounce further negotiations with Tehran and announce that only the collapse of this regime can reduce the Iranian threat and transform U.S.-Iranian relations.

Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration, is president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).

Originally published in The Hill